Nothing says “I love you” like reinforcing stereotypes for profit

Sometimes I wonder if the capitalist calendar is marked not by months, but by abstract concepts from which to draw profit. March is the month of maternity; October, horror; April, rebirth by the medium of chocolate. And so forth. February happens to be the month where romantic love is the money-spinner, by accident of having the feast of an early Christian martyr plonked squarely in the middle of it. This has been twisted into tawdry pink cards, oversized teddies, lavish dinners for two, knickers, flowers and chocolate. Nothing, we are told, says “I love you” like excessive consumption.

To sell this idea, the marketers and media-types operate in stereotypes. It’s easier for them, that way. In the first few weeks of February, therefore, we are bombarded with narratives of “getting him to propose” and “getting her in the mood”, because of course men only want to get laid and women only want to get married. The tropes of hegemonic monogamy are paraded around, playing on the niggling fears of the masses that they may end up alone if they do not capitulate and buy that heart-shaped box of champagne truffles.

It’s all grindingly awful for those of us who do not subscribe to the ideals of the default brand of monogamy. It is probably worse still for those who believe, but are single. It is the sort of thing that makes one want to leave the country and head far, far away, were it not for the fact that flights seem to cost more in the middle of February due to the glut of minibreaks for two. Instead, I learned to filter out the monotonous drone of “BUY BUY BUY”. It is only the truly terrible that makes it through. This year, I have noticed–rather fittingly for National Monogamy Day–two particularly horrid ad campaigns.

While walking through Waterloo, I encountered a set of billboards featuring a model in underwear covering herself with a bunch of flowers. LOVE STUCK? it proclaimed, before breathlessly telling me to hold my smartphone up to the poster and view it through an app to “see the model come to life” and get gift ideas. I didn’t bother. I guessed that what would happen would be that the flowers would fall away, leaving the nubile young model prancing about in her scanties. One quick Google later, and I was proved right.

This ad campaign features several of the oppressively tiresome Valentine’s Day ad tropes. It essentially says “Hello men! I know Valentine’s Day sucks, but if you buy her some nice undies, she’ll have to let you look at her in a state of near-undress. Then you’ll probably get to have a go on her tits.” It unabashedly, unashamedly advertises to the male gaze, taking the objectification of women to giddying heights. The only thing that differentiates this ad campaign from the dull static hum of the rest of it is the technological side of things. It is, at its heart, the digital age equivalent of pens that reveal a naked lady when you click the top.

The other campaign that came to my attention was one flogging gin, using the folk tradition of women being “allowed” to propose on the leap day by putting on murkily misogynistic events. Here, if you are a woman, you can learn “the knowledge and skills to trap your man” in a way which is presumably unrelated to how the words “gin” and “trap” traditionally fit into a sentence together. In order to provide equality in advertising, men may attend a “school for scoundrels” where they may learn how to “retain their liberty”. I would say that implicit in this campaign is the stereotype that women want commitment while men do not, but it is actually spelled out in the top of their publicity materials. 

Far too many young women run the risk of a Horrendous Disappointment – and too many men may succumb to dread ‘Commitment’…

What is to be done about such egregiously awful ad campaigns? So much of what they are trying to do is to gain attention, and by being so overtly hideous, they are bound to draw the eye. I have purposely avoided naming the brands in the post for this reason, and I have a personal policy of not buying from brands whose advertising has really pissed me off.

The problem is not so much that these campaigns will cause controversy: neither campaign has provoked more than a tiny murmur of frustration. The issue here is that to most people they are eye-catching not because of their flaws, but because they’re a little bit different, a little bit exciting. There is a fine line to walk between discussing misogyny in advertising and accidentally publicising companies that blithely push stereotypes to make a little bit more money in the post-Christmas slump.

The fact is, it is simply not acceptable to turn humans into cartoonish parodies: the ogling, horny man and the woman who will do anything to marry him.  It is patronising, dehumanising, and reinforces a power structure which reifies these archetypes, while wiping away any person who does not conform. This wearisome shit needs calling where its seen in the faint hope that one day we can chip away enough that February is just a short month and if you fancy giving a lover a present, then that’s absolutely fine, but nobody’s going to try and make you.

There is no ad-blocker for life, unfortunately. We need to work around that.

9 thoughts on “Nothing says “I love you” like reinforcing stereotypes for profit”

  1. As ever, bang on the money (if you’ll excuse the cheap pun of using that verb and noun, given the problem you’re discussing.) I hadn’t thought very much (until the UniLad furore apparently made them massively more popular but hey, there’s an upside to these people admittedly publicly that’s what they think) about the problem of discussing advertising without doing its own work for it, particularly when so much modern advertising is designed to become parasitic on “watercooler debate” and internet discourse, whether or not people agree with the advert.

    Just as a historical note, I believe David Mitchell and Simon Hoggart both tackled this in varying ways. Hoggart wrote an entire column pointing out that John Hemminges had form in using parliamentary privilege to break injunctions, accusing him of simply wanting publicity and carefully avoiding using his name throughout. However, the fact that the publishers of Hoggarts’ collected writings merrily put the name back in the notes shows up a problem with his approach: the entire article inadvertently treats the MP’s name as the most important question, not the issue of parliamentary privilege colliding with injunctions. David Mitchell’s brilliant rant about a Conservative backbencher who had caused a meaningless spat, and thus gained attention and drawn the press away from covering the subtantive policy question at issue, did name him repeatedly. However at the end, Mitchell pointed out how illogical it would have been for him to accurately name the MP, and revealed that he had been using the name of a rather pleasant young man who worked as a researcher for his show. Again, nice move, and it gets closer than Hoggart to examining process and principle instead of doing a nominative striptease, but it does still focus too much on the act of naming. All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying I think you finessed this rather better than they did – your approach underlines that these companies are more or less interchangeable, and if we don’t know who you’re talking about, we can probably provide similar examples from our own wandering around towns.

    1. Thank you– I’ve been worried I’ve not managed to walk the line very well, and this has made me feel a lot better 🙂

    2. Addendum: I thought I might have done A Bad Thing by linking to the ads. However, they seem to have trackbacks on their site, so I’m getting a shitload of traffic from the knicker-merchants. Kind of victory!

      1. Ha! Excellent. Stavver: 1 Heteronormative Gussetfanglers: 0. (Though I didn’t even know that could happen – cue team of Valentine’s Day-related web surveillance experts in a new HBO show “The Underwire”.)

  2. Wonderful – encapsulates everything I thought while reading the retailer’s self-satisfied flourishes.

    I’m Luddite enough for much of the marketing to have passed me by – no augmented whatsits for me, thanks very much – and I’ve never bothered with the solipsistic section of their website before, so it’s a delight to find your link merrily subverting it all.

  3. Just found your site AAW…it is quite entertaining. Here in the American Colony we have changed February from President’s month to Black History month. I wonder if this a commercial concoction or just another bit of leftist stupidity.

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